The “Trump Effect” and HamasMonday 24/07/2017

Donald Trump’s ascent to the United States presidency has had a domino effect on the Arab world, with the aftershocks directly targeting the Palestinian organization Hamas.  Under Trump’s foreign policy, the president takes a hardliner approach to global terrorism.  Trump hopes to defeat Islamic radical terrorism through partnering with other countries in “aggressive joint operations.”  Trump also emphasizes that the United States is always happy when “old enemies become friends” and help aid in their military ventures.  Various Arab leaders who have had rocky relations with past presidential administrations see this conciliatory approach as an opportunity and are making political decisions that align with Trump.  Saudi Arabia specifically has benefited from the President’s willingness to look towards the future, evidenced by the recent meetings and arms deal between the two countries.  The Palestinian Authority (PA), in preparation for their meeting with Trump as well as the resurgence of peace negotiations, cracked down on Hamas in Gaza.  By cutting funding for electricity to Gaza, the PA is attempting to prove to Trump that they are committed to fighting against global terrorism. Differently than Obama, Donald Trump is willing to look past human rights concerns in favor of furthering his goal of eradicating global terrorism.

While President Trump has not issued any directive orders against Hamas, his demanding rhetoric has influenced Arab countries to act against the organization to curry favor with the United States.  Originally, Hamas viewed the Trump presidency as an opportunity to restore relations with the US.  They saw Trump as “having a greater threshold for boldness than [his] predecessors…could be a historic opportunity to pressure Israel.” Well aware of Trump’s policy towards terrorism combined with the rising humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Hamas knew that relations with the administration could make or break their ten-year regime in the territory.  In early May, Hamas published a new policy document for the first time since their founding charter in the late 1980s.  While Hamas leaders publically argue that this is part of the natural evolution of Hamas, the document appears to be largely moderated from their original position.  They state that they are prepared to accept a two state solution with 1967 borders. Compared to their original stance that would not accept anything less than all of Israel, this an apparent large concession.  Hamas also provides that their conflict is not with Jews specifically as a people, but with the “Zionist project”. In moderating their policy, Hamas is hoping to open a new era of relations with the United States to retain their power hold in the Gaza strip.

Much to the disappointment of Hamas leadership, President Trump was not swayed by their apparent mainstreaming. With many analysts calling the new document simply window dressing to appeal to Western audiences, the President’s administration barely acknowledged their change in policy. A few weeks later, Trump addressed 55 Arab countries at the Rihyad Summit in Saudi Arabia in which he emphasized the necessity of partnering with other countries to “stamp out extremism” and labeling Hamas as a terrorist organization. He repeated to the delegates present to “drive them out” and “strip them of their access to funds.”  By formally connecting Hamas and his goal of eradicating terrorism, Trump laid out to these Arab countries a clear path to contracting better relations with the United States.

Just a few days later, four Arab countries spurred the President’s demands into action. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Qatar over their support for groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran that the United States categorized as terrorist entities. Qatar has invested millions into Gaza’s infrastructure, given substantial financial aid to the territory and also provides refuge for the organization’s exiled leaders.  However, days after the beginning of the crisis, Qatar expelled Hamas leaders from Doha due to “unspecified pressure” as well as suspended electricity funding to Gaza. Hamas expressed their outrage at being ostracized by the Trump administration and the subsequent punishing of Qatar, one of their largest backers.  A spokesman decried “the statement describing Hamas as a terror group…is a distortion of our image and shows a complete bias to the Zionist occupation.”

With this seemingly waning support from Qatar combined with the Palestinian’s Authority recent crack down on Hamas, the organization needs to secure partnerships with other actors in order to keep control of the Gaza strip and stay in power against the Palestinian Authority.  As the humanitarian crisis will only escalate with the loss of funding and electricity, Hamas’ proximate actions will determine the organizations future.  Their search is already bringing more contention to the region as they have begun to cozying up with more extreme factions such as Iran and Hezbollah due to regional isolation. The Palestinian Authority is also keeping a close eye on the reconciliation with exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan who keeps close relations with Egyptian leadership.

Hamas’ true colors:

While Hamas seemingly moderated their policy in early March, the organization returned to their original extremist ideology just a few months later. In his first public speech to the people of Gaza in early July, the new political leader Ismail Haniyeh did not attempt to appeal to Western audiences and directly contradicts their new policy document. . Hamas’ hopes for negotiating with the US are extinguished due to regional developments such as the Gulf Crisis that was indirectly affected by Trump’s anti-terror rhetoric. Where Hamas conceded to accepting a two state solution with 1967 borders, the political leader calls for a Palestinian State that “can not give up a grain of soil” and “will foil any attempt to the so-called solution of ‘alternative homeland’.” He also refers to “schemes of Judaization,” detracting from the previous statement that Hamas’ issue is not with Jews but solely Zionism. He slams President Trump for labeling Hamas a terror organization, encouraging the “Zionist enemy” and “blackmail[ing] the Arab and Islamic forces” against the “Palestinian cause.” He also berates the Palestinian Authority for “responding to American dictations.”

Haniyeh is reacting to Trump’s foreign policy by crafting his speech to appeal to potential Arab backers. The Hamas leader hopes to quell some of the regional pressure against the organization by reaffirming their commitment to their “Arab brothers”. Haniyeh argues that Hamas is a resistance movement solely focused on furthering the Palestinian cause, that their issue is not with Arab countries but solely Israeli occupation. His promises are most likely directed at Egypt who has accused Hamas of aiding guerilla rebels within their country. Haniyeh claims that Arab countries will “only see virtue from Hamas and…wish[es] them security, stability and protection.”  Haniyeh further paints a number of Arab countries as friends of the Gazan movement even as many of them have had cold ties with Hamas, in hopes of facilitating warmer relations.   Haniyeh thanked Egypt, Qatar and Turkey for their historical and hopefully continued support of the Palestinian people in Gaza. He also labeled Saudi Arabia as an ally, even as the country condemns Hamas as a terrorist organization after meeting with Donald Trump. Most importantly, Haniyeh publically confirmed the organization’s ties with other US condemned extremist groups such as Iran. He thanked the country for “developing its military power,” confirming what had only previously been rumored throughout the Middle East.

Hamas looks for allies:

With Donald Trump indirectly influencing Gulf Countries, the Palestinian Authority and even Qatar to break with Hamas, the organization must secure other financial backers for survival. But although Egypt cut ties with Qatar after Donald Trump’s speech, the country and Hamas have been in recent talks. As the two share a border, reopening negotiations is critical for Hamas’ survival and in aiding the humanitarian crisis. Hamas and Egypt have had especially rocky relations since the 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, of which Hamas is a direct offshoot of.  Since the coup, the Egyptian government has accused Hamas of being responsible for a number of attacks, to which the organization refutes.  Egypt has further blockaded the Rafah border in an attempt to control smuggling of weapons into Egypt to support the government’s adversaries.  In their new policy document, Hamas attempts to distance themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood by negating to mention their ties with the organization, in an effort to restore relations with Egypt.

Current talks between Hamas and Egypt are also being facilitated by the presence of former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan.  Once a high ranking official in the Palestinian Authority leading the fight against Hamas in 2006, Dahlan was exiled and expelled from Fatah in 2011 because he of his perceived threat to Abbas’ power.  The former Hamas adversary sees Hamas’ isolation as an opportunity to align with the organization against the PA.  Dahlan enjoys close relations with Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and has been acting as an intermediary in meetings between Egypt and Hamas.  For his efforts, Dahlan would be allowed to return to Gaza to be in charge of foreign relations while Hamas keeps control over the territory’s security.  After what Hamas called “9 days of constructive meetings with Cairo officials,” Egypt agreed to provide some electricity in exchange for a commitment to tighten security on the border to stop smuggling weapons into Egypt to aid government enemies.  They also demanded that Hamas stop negotiations with Iran. In an effort to prove their commitment to the negotiations, Hamas began construction in late June on a no-go security zone to control and boost border security.

            However, President Abbas is worried by the resurging negotiations between the two forces. The PA president needs Hamas at its weakest to regain control over the Gaza strip and to be seen as the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people in future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. As Abbas was set to meet with the Egyptian president in Cairo, purchased fuel from Egypt was drastically reduced in Gaza due to interference by the PA. Relations with Egypt may not only be subject to fissure due to external sabotage by Abbas, but also because of Hamas’ recent cozying up to Iran.  As part of their negotiations, Egypt warned Gaza leadership not to reconcile with the country. Once the strongest of allies, Hamas and Iran have been at odds since 2012 when the Palestinian organization supported the wrong side in Syria.  Subsequently, Iran cut off public relations and military aid.  However, as the Trump administration has condemned both Iran and Hamas as terrorist entities, the two are facing regional isolation together and has only brought them closer.  Iran is also pleased with the change in Hamas’ political leadership, as they favor Ismail Haniyeh over the former political chief Khaled Meshaal. After reportedly meeting with a delegation in Lebanon, Iran allegedly agreed to resume financial funding to Hamas in the near future. In Lebanon, Hamas began to reconcile with another labeled terror organization, Hezbollah,  “under an Iranian umbrella”.  The day after Haniyeh’s July speech that publically affirmed the reconciliation, another high ranking Hamas official declared the next day that ties with Iran are “as close and strong as ever.”  If Hamas continues to entertain relations with Iran, budding negotiations with Egypt may dissolve even without the meddling of the Palestinian Authority. This would force Hamas to be almost completely dependent on Iran.  This resurgence of alliances can only mean bad news for Israel as the two unite to carry out attacks from both Lebanon and Gaza.

While Donald Trump envisions his hardliner approach as the best way to combat terrorism, recent developments in the Middle East such as the Gulf Crisis and actions by the PA have only radicalized Hamas away from their attempt at moderating their policy in March. As the hot summer progresses and the humanitarian crisis only worsens, Hamas will pursue whatever course of action to maintain power in the Gaza Strip, with Iran seeming to be the most probable and reliable ally.

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